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At This Hour

Kentucky Sees Record Number of New COVID Cases in One Week; How Spies Plotted to Lure Alleged Russian War Criminals; President Biden Delivers Remarks in Honor of Labor Unions. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired September 08, 2021 - 11:30   ET



SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The other aspect of this is that the Taliban have just appointed their government, a government unreconstructed hardliners, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, a senior member of the Haqqani Network, a man with a $10 million price on his head on the FBI's most wanted list, his uncle, Khalil, also a member of the Haqqani Network, a designated terrorist network. In fact, there are two other family members in that cabinet. The prime minister also under U.N. sanctions for terrorism.

So a very hard line government, a government with no women in it and a government with no former members of the Afghan government that they deposed in it. So, this is a very hardline government. But the people on the streets that you were showing, that we've been showing on CNN, are also demonstrating against that.

They're demonstrating against the formation of this -- of a government that has no women, that is in no way inclusive. And that is going to be very difficult to sell for the Taliban to the international community and to the Afghans themselves, predominantly urban population, remember, Kate.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Absolutely. Good to see you, Sam. Thank you so much for staying on this.

Coming up for us, hospitals forced to close operating rooms to make space for ICU patients. Kentucky is seeing a record number of COVID cases and hospitalizations. I'm going to speak to Kentucky's governor about what's happening in his state, next.



BOLDUAN: Hospitals in Kentucky are being overwhelmed right now with COVID patients. Some are being forced to close operating rooms in order to make space for more ICU patients. The state just reported the highest number of weekly COVID cases ever, more than 30,000 cases last week alone. And a quarter of the new cases reported yesterday are children. And now, the governor has even called in the National Guard to help.

Joining me right now is the Democratic governor of Kentucky, Governor Andy Beshear. Governor, thank you for coming back in.

Your hospitals are filled. You have a critical staffing shortage that you're facing, you've talked about. So, lay out where do things stand for your state this morning with COVID.

GOV. ANDY BESHEAR (D-KY): We're in a really tough place, Kate. We have hospitals full. We have tents set up to triage people outside of them. We've called in FEMA strike teams, the National Guard. We've deployed nursing students all over the state.

We've taken over testing from hospitals just to free up additional people. But we've had more people test positive than ever before. We have more people in the hospital because of COVID than ever before. We are at record numbers or near record numbers we set just days ago, people in the ICU or on a ventilator.

The delta variant is really aggressive. It is really dangerous. We're going to see some form of this all over the country. We just really need people to get vaccinated and to wear a mask when they are in public but indoors.

BOLDUAN: And I'll talk about masks in just one second. But if you are -- if some of your hospitals are to the place of needing to close down surgical rooms in order to make more space for ICU needs, are hospitals at a point in your state where doctors are having to make tough choices about rationing care?

BESHEAR: Well, at the moment we're still able to move patients from one hospital to another, but we are right at or quickly approaching that point. We've got one hospital in Morehead called St. Claire, that's closed three operating rooms to expand ICU bed space. We had a hospital in Danville, Kentucky, that's not used to treating really sick patients, that had a morgue for two and had seven individuals pass away in their hospital over one weekend.

Again, we've set up tents outside of Pikeville Medical Center to triage whether people really need to be in the hospital or not. So we are at a very precarious situation, over two-thirds of our hospitals with critical staffing shortages. We've had to ultimately deliver ventilators to hospitals around the state that almost never have to use ventilators.

So it's not just big urban hospitals that fill up. It's regional hospitals that typically don't treat incredibly sick patients who are filled with those sick patients. It is concerning. It's also really traumatic on the staff throughout Kentucky. But they keep showing up every day, thank God for the nurses and doctors, everyone showing up to do their very best in the midst of a difficult but also a frustrating situation where we could have prevented this by simply everyone going in and getting that vaccine.

BOLDUAN: That's right. I mean, to kind of the point of prevention and what you can do now, you brought the legislature back for a special session. And, overnight, they voted to extend your COVID emergency order. If anyone has been following what's been going on in Kentucky, this kind of comes after a lot of back and forth between you, the legislature and the courts over who can put in mandates and how.


Does this move overnight mean that you can now put back in place a mask mandate again?

BESHEAR: Unfortunately, it doesn't. Up to this point, I've been able to carry the ball in Kentucky. I've been able to make the tough decisions. I've instituted mask mandates twice in Kentucky. We've required them in public schools. But a recent Supreme Court decision say a lot of those decisions now has to be made by the state legislature.

We are still in special session. They passed what I would call kind of the belt-and-suspenders part of the emergency order, things everybody agree on. But they're going to be debating masking in schools and masking in other settings over the next couple of days. We agree on a lot of things, but this is one that is incredibly important.

Our two primary tools to defeating delta and every other variant are vaccines and masks. And every time we make it harder to ultimately put rules and orders in place to get people to mask up when it's truly scary out there, we make it harder to ultimately deal with these surges.

And I've been really proud. Up to now, Kentucky has never had an overwhelmed hospital. We have knocked down every single surge that we've faced. We've had a mortality rate way below the national average. Why? Because we have been able to mask when necessary.

We're not living in that reality right now. I hope the legislature will at least set parameters, whereby if we reach red, for instance, in the county on the CDC's incident rate maps, that at least then something would trigger. But let's not take away one of the best tools that we have to fight this virus.

BOLDUAN: And right now, you have many counties that are in the red, as you're laying out. It is all throughout Kentucky at the moment. Governor, thank you very much. We'll continue to follow what is going to be happening in the next couple days especially. Thanks for your time.

BESHEAR: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: I want to turn to Texas now, and the new reality setting in there. The legislature and the governor effectively banning all abortions, no exceptions for rape or incest. And yesterday, the governor was asked about that aspect of it. And I want you to hear his response, one that both defies belief and defies the current reality.


REPORTER: Why force a rape or incest victim to carry a pregnancy to term?

GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R-TX): It doesn't require that at all, because, obviously, it provides at least six weeks for a person to be able to get an abortion. So, for one, it doesn't provide that.

That said, however, let's make something very clear. Rape is a crime, and Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas.


BOLDUAN: His defense of this is ridiculous and dangerous and ignorant on two levels. First, Texas has a massive backlog of rape kits that remain untested. You don't have to ask me. The Republican senator from Texas, John Cornyn, he called out this problem back in February. John Cornyn penned an op-ed saying Texas has the tools to fix this huge problem but clearly hasn't yet.

So, you are excused if you don't take Governor Abbott's pledge seriously that he's going to, in his words, work tirelessly to eliminate all rapists from the streets. Because as of February of this year, he had 6,000 cases of these rape test kits proving otherwise.

And another thing, Abbott's fundamental misunderstanding of a woman's body when he says you have at least six weeks to get an abortion, implying that that is plenty of time, it isn't. Here is Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.


REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): I don't know if he is familiar with a menstruating person's body. In fact, I do know that he's not familiar with a female or a menstruating person's body. Because if he did, he would know that you don't have six weeks.

It's awful, and he speaks from such a place of deep ignorance. And it's not just ignorance. It's ignorance that is hurting people across this country.


BOLDUAN: We're going to keep following this story, I can promise you that.

Up next for us, suspected Russian mercenaries arrested and deported. A CNN exclusive shows you an incredible international sting that you have to see to believe.



BOLDUAN: In July of last year, security forces in Belarus arrested 33 suspected Russian mercenaries accusing the Kremlin of sending them to inflame anti-government tensions in the country ahead of presidential elections. The men were paraded on state T.V. in Belarus before being deported back to Russia. But CNN can now reveal stunning details of what former Ukrainian intelligence officials say was actually not a failed attempt by Moscow to meddle in the elections of Belarus at all, but a foiled Ukrainian-led operation to capture and jail Russian mercenaries linked to war crimes.

CNN's Matthew Chance has this exclusive report.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The dramatic raid in a Minsk hotel was all overstate T.V. Belarusian special forces shown arresting this group of alleged Russian mercenaries, experienced fighters is how they were described, suspected of being sent by Moscow to disrupt elections in the country last year.

We got confirmed intel. These Russians had real combat experience and actually took part in armed conflicts, this heavily-disguised Belarusian police commander warned at the time.


But what he didn't know is why this mysterious group of Russians was really there, until now.

Well, when they're driving to an undisclosed location on the outskirts of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, where we are set to meet a group of former Ukrainian and military intelligence officials who have an extraordinary story about what actually went down in Belarus and about how those Russian mercenaries were, in fact, part of an elaborate Ukrainian-led sting operation to capture suspected Russian war criminals to bring them to justice here.

The former high ranking officers spoke to CNN on condition we shield their identities. They're not authorized to disclose details of what they say was an ambitious top secret plan backed by the United States that failed at the last moment when Belarus intervened.

When you saw all those people, those Russian mercenaries being arrested in Belarus, that was a nightmare for you. What did you think?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The feeling I got was very bad, because it meant all our hard work had gone down the drain. We carefully prepared for more than a year in the hope that justice would prevail and that these bandits would be in prison and punished. Unfortunately, this didn't happen.

CHANCE: When he says bandits, he means Russian-backed fighters battling Ukrainian government forces in the country's breakaway east (ph). Among them, a Russian nationals accused of involvement in some of the worst atrocities of the war, like the downing in 2014 of a Malaysian Airliner MH17 with nearly 300 people on board.

Our intelligence sources say the men detained in Belarus have been identified over months as having suspected links to war crimes. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There were two present when missile that downed MH17 was launched. Four others were members of a group responsible for shooting down our military aircraft and killing at least 70 of our best men. So, identifying and punishing these people was of high interest to us.

CHANCE: It was apparently of interest to U.S. officials too, although U.S. officials deny having any direct role. According to our sources, the Ukrainian-led operation got some U.S. cash, technical assistance and advice from the CIA on drawing Russian mercenaries in. A senior U.S. official told CNN those allegations are false.

But identifying the right p and luring them out of Russia required an elaborate deception. So our former Ukrainian military intelligence sources told us they set about creating a fake private military company with its own Russian language website. On it, they advertise jobs, like one lucrative contract, $5,000 a month, to protect oil facilities in Venezuela. That was the bait. And we're told hundreds of Russian mercenaries actually took it.

All they had to do, according to our sources, was prove who they were and where they fought.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We started to call them and say, hey, man. Okay. Tell me something about yourself. Maybe you are not really a fighter. Maybe you are a plumber or something like that. And then they started to reveal things about themselves, sending us documents, military ids and proof of where they fought. And we are like, bingo. We can use that.

CHANCE: They're sending you evidence of who they are.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, they sent it to us, absolutely.

CHANCE: In fact, what followed was, according to our sources, a fountain of freely volunteered intel, not just documents and photos but potentially incriminating videos like this one, after the downing of a Ukrainian military aircraft in the eastern war zone, offered up by the fighters themselves. All Ukrainian intelligence had to do was pick the ones it wanted, offered the lucrative Venezuela contracts, because of COVID-19 travel restrictions in Russia, assembled them neighboring Belarus to fly out. Our intelligence sources say the real plan was to land them in Ukraine and make the arrests.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If these people would have ended up here in Ukraine, the details of their criminal acts would have become known around the world. Ukraine could have brought them to justice and shown that our fight with Russia is serious and that we won't raise our hands and surrender.

CHANCE: But the plan failed when the Belarusians arrested the group just hours before they were meant to leave.


It could have been a stunning blow to Moscow, instead, according to our sources, a bold Ukrainian intelligence operation was foiled.


CHANCE: Well, the current Ukrainian government is trying to put some distance between itself and what we know unfolded last year. The country's intelligence officials have responded to our request for a comment about this failed sting. But even if this operation had been successful and so many Russians had been captured, it's unlikely anybody from the Ukrainian or indeed the U.S. governments would have wanted to take responsibility.

Matthew Chance, CNN, London.

BOLDUAN: Extraordinary reporting. Thank you, Matthew.

Inside Politics with John King begins after this break.


BOLDUAN: All right. let's go to the White House. Joe Biden taking to the podium to speak to labor unions, as -- let's listen in.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: Please, please, please. Thank you, (INAUDIBLE). Nothing to it, is there, Jocelyn, just walking in and stand at the podium in a week in the White House, nothing to it. You did a great job and thank you. Thank you.

Before I really begin, I want to say that I think one of the biggest things that's changed is my dear mother, God bless her soul, used to say out of everything bad, something good will come if you look hard enough for it.

And I think one of the good things that's come out of this God awful crisis regarding COVID is ordinary people who never thought about the technician at the drugstore, never thought about the grocery store worker, never thought about what that firefighter has to do or go in, they don't ask do you have COVID or not, never thought about the people who keep this country up and running.